Sunday, November 30, 2008

Happy New Year!

Today is the first day of Advent, the period leading up to Christmas, and the start of the Christian calendar. It is a period of waiting, waiting with Israel for the Messiah, reading the prophecies of his arrival, waiting with the world for Messiah's return, watching and praying.

This is a period for those who follow the coming Christ to stand out by sitting down, by not joining in the rush and hurry and endless activity. This is the time when we remember that we are not the ones we have been waiting for, that our hope is in God, that our night is dark but dawn is coming.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Everything's amazing, nobody's happy

How quickly we adjust our expectations. Take some time to wonder.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Morality in the SMH

I thought this was an interesting article. Though brief, it highlights a number of the problems any discussion of "morality" faces in the public square these days.

Did Jesus really love his disciples?

We pretend that it was only the ungodly who were offended at Christ. What a misunderstanding! No, the best and most kindly man, humanly speaking, who has ever lived, must be offended at him, must misunderstand him; for what love is, divinely understood, this the best of men could learn only from Him. The love Christ, humanly understood, was not self-sacrificing - anything but that; he did not make himself unhappy, in order, humanly understood, to make his disciples happy. No, he made himself and his disciples, humanly speaking, as unhappy as possible. And he who had had it in his power to establish the Kingdom of Israel and make everything so pleasant for himself and his followers, as every contemporary could see clearly enough! [...] No, humanly speaking, it was indeed madness: he sacrifices himself - in order to make the beloved equally unhappy with himself! [...] Was this really love: to gather some poor, simpleminded men about him, to win their devotion and love, as no other had ever won it, to pretend for a moment to look out for them, as now the prospect of the fulfillment of their proudest dream is revealed to them - in order suddenly to reconsider and change the plans; in order without being moved by their prayers, without paying the least attention to them, to plunge them down from this seductive height into the abyss of all dangers; in order, without resistant, to give his enemies power; in order, under mockery and insult while the world rejoiced, to be nailed to the cross as a criminal; was this really love?

- Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (trans. David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson; Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1946), 90-91.

Did Jesus really love his disciples? He demanded everything of them and then abandoned them, leaving them vulnerable and liable to persecution. He lead them along a path that involved loss of property, freedom, friends, community-standing and ultimately, life. Was he really of any help to them? Kierkegaard's point is that Jesus' claim to love is incomprehensible without reference to God. Do you agree?
Photo by AL.
Five points for naming the department that occupies the rooms in the centre of the picture.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

And while I'm reporting movements

Anthony (of the 600 points and nearly 200 comments - though I'm sure he also has a life) is going to Shoalhaven.

You'd better watch out...'d better not cry. But someone is coming to town and while he's very jolly, I don't think he's into red suits with ermine trimming.
Yes, I recognise that from my present perspective he is going, but you can take the boy out of Sydney...

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Don't watch this video...

...if you want to sleep tonight.

Very appropriate for the season. H/T Frank.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Finitude is a gift

Faced with ecological threats of various kinds, many people would rather not think about them. They retreat into denial, or a security based in the possibility of technological advances or the allegedly inevitable forces of the free market. The broad popularity of reaching for hope in the market or technological fixes can be seen in the frequency with which politicians draw upon these themes. We are comfortable and our inertia draws us to answers that require little thought and less change. We trust that the explosive economic growth of the last few hundred years is now the normal trajectory, able to be extrapolated into the foreseeable future.

Wendell Berry has written an excellent article titled "Faustian economics: Hell hath no limits" reflecting upon our collective obsession with the myth of infinite growth. He argues that the pursuit of limitless consumption, unbounded knowledge and endless control is not only a dangerous illusion destroying our planet, but an attack on our very humanity. We will ultimately lose not just the planet, but also our soul. He rediscovers a life-giving alternative (though he doesn't say so explicitly) in a Christian conception of creatureliness. Here is a taste of the essay's opening:

"The general reaction to the apparent end of the era of cheap fossil fuel, as to other readily foreseeable curtailments, has been to delay any sort of reckoning. The strategies of delay, so far, have been a sort of willed oblivion, or visions of large profits to the manufacturers of such 'biofuels' as ethanol from corn or switchgrass, or the familiar unscientific faith that 'science will find an answer.' The dominant response, in short, is a dogged belief that what we call the American Way of Life will prove somehow indestructible. We will keep on consuming, spending, wasting, and driving, as before, at any cost to anything and everybody but ourselves.

"This belief was always indefensible—the real names of global warming are Waste and Greed—and by now it is manifestly foolish. But foolishness on this scale looks disturbingly like a sort of national insanity. We seem to have come to a collective delusion of grandeur, insisting that all of us are “free” to be as conspicuously greedy and wasteful as the most corrupt of kings and queens. (Perhaps by devoting more and more of our already abused cropland to fuel production we will at last cure ourselves of obesity and become fashionably skeletal, hungry but—thank God!—still driving.)"
The full article is not short (approx. 4,000 words), but well worth reading and re-reading. H/T Roberto.

From New York to York St

Breaking news: Justin is coming back to Sydney.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Why we must wear neck ties and other links

Why we must wear neck ties - reflections on fashion, colonialism and pointlessness from Boxologies.
A picture is worth a thousand words, or $233.95 - an amusing email correspondence. H/T Celia.
Water and whisky - "And so we must drink water in the way we drink single-malt scotch, and we must drink single-malt scotch in the way we drink water."
How to prevent any political progress - a cartoon.
Agriculture as sustained catastrophe - a short history of western civilisation based on the assumption that where we went wrong was putting seeds in the ground.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

On Rowan Williams: now available

For those who may be interested, Wipf and Stock have recently published a new volume of essays titled On Rowan Williams: Critical Essays, edited by the irrepressible Dr Matheson Russell from the University of Auckland. The collection includes nine contributions from young Australian Anglicans, such as Ben Myers (Faith and Theology), Michael Jensen (The Blogging Parson), Andrew Cameron, Greg Clarke and more. There is a foreword by Oliver O'Donovan and a twenty-eight page bibliography of all Williams' published works. Here is the blurb from the publisher's site:

Theologian, poet, public intellectual, and clergyman, Rowan Williams is one of the leading lights of contemporary British theology. He has published over twenty books and one hundred scholarly essays in a distinguished career as an academic theologian that culminated in his appointment as Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford University. Williams left this post to serve in the Anglican Church, first as Bishop of Monmouth, then Archbishop of Wales, before finally being enthroned in 2003 as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury.

In this collection of essays, a talented younger generation of Australian theologians critically analyzes the themes that bind together Williams's theology. These sympathetic yet probing essays traverse the full breadth of Williams's work, from his studies on Arius, the Desert Fathers, Hegel, and Trinitarian theology to his more pastoral writings on spirituality, sexuality, politics, and the Anglican Church.
Here is what you get:
Foreword: Australia on Rowan Williams • Oliver O’Donovan
Introduction • Matheson Russell
1. The Ecclesiology of Rowan Williams • Rhys Bezzant
2. The Hidden Center: Trinity and incarnation in the Negative (and Positive) Theology of Rowan Williams • Andrew Moody
3. Disruptive History: Rowan Williams on Heresy and Orthodoxy • Benjamin Myers
4. Krisis? Kritik?: Judgment and Jesus in the Theology of Rowan Williams • Michael Jensen
5. Dispossession and Negotiation: Rowan Williams on Hegel and Political Theology • Matheson Russell
6. The Humanity of Godliness: Spirituality and Creatureliness in Rowan Williams • Byron Smith
7. Desire and Grace: Rowan Williams and the Search for Bodily Wholeness • Andrew Cameron
8. Rowan Williams on War and Peace • Tom Frame
9. The Beauty of God in Cairo and Islamabad: Rowan Williams as Apologist • Greg Clarke
The price is a mere US$29.00, or $23.20 from the Wipf and Stock website. Unfortunately, if you happen to live outside the US, then you'll need to contact the publisher to ask for a special order form (and pay approx US$13 in P&H). I have no idea why any non-US resident would consider buying a book about a Brit by a bunch of Aussies.
Twenty points if you purchase a copy of the book. Prove it by quoting the first sentence of a random page in the book. (Hahaha, what a brilliant marketing ploy!)

UPDATE: A nice review by Bruce Kaye.

The Life of Jesus

The Centre for Public Christianity (CPX) are soon to release a new documentary called The Life of Jesus, a follow up to The Christ Files. Looks like it will be more quality work from Greg Clarke and John Dickson. Here is a short teaser:

H/T Matt.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Which is "the best" English Bible translation?

A guest post by Donna
Donna is a Bible translator working in South Asia
Have you ever heard someone talking about a particular English Bible translation and saying it's the best? I've heard that said about the ESV, the NIV, the NRSV, the NLT and The Message. Can they all be the best?

I was sitting in a Translation Priciples lecture recently and started to think about the different English translations and what their relative strengths are. Before I get there, let me outline the three different kinds of translation.

1. Some translations are literal or "word for word" translations. This means that they try to translate each word as closely as possible to the word that was used in the original Greek (or Hebrew/Aramaic in the Old Testatment). The ESV is a good example of this. This means that you will be able to see the language structure and word choice of the original language more clealy (though you are still reading it all in English).

2. Some translations are "meaning based" translations, which means that they first take a whole idea (might be a sentence or a clause) in the original language and translate the meaning of that idea into English. So the sentence structure will be more different to the original language than in a more literal translation, but it will also use more natural English. The NLT is a good representative of this approach, which is also sometimes called "dynamic equivalence".

3. Some translations are "paraphrases". These go further than the "meaning based translations" and apply the point of what was said in the original to today's situation and might even change what is being talked about to make the same point. The Message is usually placed in this category. Some people say that The Message, though it might be very helpful, is not a translation at all because it changes the meaning too much.

The risk with using a too literal translation is that the language might be too unnatual English to be understood properly (I have heard some people say that the ESV is too difficult for their children, even teenage children, to understand). The risk with a meaning based translation, and especially a paraphrase, is that you may not have understood the meaning correctly, and therefore what you translate might be wrong.

In summary literal translations run the risk of being unintelligible, other types of translations run the risk of being wrong!

These are not three discrete categories, they're a continuum, so the NIV and NRSV are placed somewhere in between the literal and meaning based translations.

To repesent the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, I came up with this little table:
Before explaining my table I should say that I'm talking about good translations here. There can also be very bad, literal and meaning based translations and bad paraphrases, but I'm not including those in my analysis.

Ideational Meaning is what people usually mean when they say "meaning". When we say "John walked out the door" the ideational meaning refers to this person called John and that he moved, putting his feet in front of one another to go out the door.

I think that meaning based translations do ideational meaning best. Literal translations don't convey the ideational meaning quite as well, because the meaning can be obscured when it uses foreign idioms or phrases. Paraphrases don't attempt to accurately convey the ideational meaning.

Textual meaning refers to how what is read relates to the rest of the text. For example in Mark chapter 2 Jesus refers to himself as "the son of man". The ideational meaning of this phrase is "I", people used this phrase to refer to themselves often. But on a textual level we can see that Jesus might have used this phrase to remind people of something else - in this case maybe the passage from Daniel 7.

Since they use a "word for word" translation strategy, links between texts can be most easily seen in literal translations. (From the introduction: "The ESV is an "essentially literal" translation that seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer.") This is not always as clear in meaning based translations - though footnotes can help - and it is not clear at all in paraphrases.

Affectual meaning relates to how reading the passage affects readers' emotions [ed. how it effects affects]. How are we to feel when, for example, Jesus is betrayed, or when he dies, or when he is transfigured, or when he feeds the five thousand? The original readers might have felt a certain way about something, but because we are so far removed from their culture we might miss some things and not be affected the same way.

Affectual meaning is best conveyed by paraphrases (as long as you belong to their target audience, if not the meaning can be lost on you, or misunderstood). Their aim is to affect the emotions of the readers and motivate the reader. In paraphrases there is no question of the original language affecting the grammar structure used, thus they are best at conveying affectual meaning, meaning based translations are next, and literal translations come in last in terms of affectual meaning because the English used is the least natural, and therefore affects our emotions the least.

In summary, meaning based translations (like the NLT) convey the ideational meaning the best. Literal, or word for word translations (like ESV) convey the textual meaning the best. And paraphrases (like The Message) convey the affectual meaning the best.

So when people say that the ESV is the best translation I would say:

• Yes it is! If you're studying the original text and want help understanding the Greek, or if you want to know what the original language says, but can't study the original language.
• But no it's not! If you want to read the bible in natural English, nor if you want your heart, as well as your head, to easily understand what you're reading.
If people say that the NLT is the best translation I would say:

• Yes! Because it is written in very nice English, which speaks to my heart well, and it also clearly shows the meaning. I especially like reading the Old Testament prophets in the NLT because I find I need it written in natural English to really understand what's happening since their situation and culture and also the genre is very removed from what I'm used to.
• And No! Because it isn't so easy to see how one passage relates to others, and also some of the ambiguities in the original language are lost. For example 1 Timothy 2:15 where the NLT has "women" the Greek word would be more accurately translated "he" or "she".
If people say that The Message is the best translation I would say:
• Yes! Because it speaks to my heart well and applies the message to my own culture, which gives me encouragement very directly, and means that I am affected strongly by each encouragement and each rebuke.
• But also No! In some ways The Message changes the meaning a little too much, and I'm never quite sure when biblical author's writings end and the interpretation of the translator begins. The Message is really more like good preaching. It is powerful and it hits home. But the message of The Message must also be tested against a translation which sticks more closely to the original text.
Want to share any thoughts about this with me? What did you think of my graph? Which translation do you like best and why?

As a post scipt I should also say that not all these positives and negatives have the same weight for me, and so there is a translation that I prefer above the others. Other people will have different priorities and different background and will therefore will prefer a different translation to me.

I acknowledge Kirk Patston who first told me about the three types of meaning though under different names in a very interesting Old Testament lecture. The idea has been adapted from the linguist Michael Halliday.
Eight points for giving the correct chapter reference for the first image, twelve for giving the proper name of the volume in which it is found and fifteen for the location (country and city) in which it can be found.

Church politics

An oxymoron? A tautology? A necessary evil? An expression of God's kingdom? Michael Jensen posts eight points on church politics.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Faithfulness is failure (or looks like it)

As the world sees it, action which is faithful to God will always fail, just as Jesus Christ necessarily went to the cross. Such action always leads to a dead end. It is always a fiasco from the standpoint of worldly power. But this should not worry us. It does not mean that our action is in truth ineffectual. Efficacy measured in terms of faithfulness cannot be compared at any point with efficacy measured in terms of success. [...] The action we attempt will always be regarded by the world as a failure, and the more so the more it is authentically faithful. We cannot be successful or show the church to be effective in the world unless we adopt the world's criterion of efficacy, which means adopting its means as well."

- Jacques Ellul, The Politics of God and the Politics of Man
(trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Eerdmans, 1972 [1966]), 140.

Is this a profound insight into an age of frustration, in which the church lives in hope of the promise, that is, by faith not by sight? Or is it an excuse for failure?
Ten points for the name of the bay.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ethics is good news

Ethics is often seen as an afterthought, a tidying up, an appendix to the good news of Jesus' life, death and resurrection for us. Oh, by the way, now that you've heard and accepted all the great gifts of God to us in Christ, he also wants you to live a certain way, to stop doing certain things, to start doing other things, to think and feel particular things. It can feel as though, having started with grace, with God's free gift, we then shift gears and have to start making our contribution. Perhaps we have to show how thankful we are for what God has done. Perhaps we need to make sure that having been welcomed into God's family by grace, we manage to not stuff things up. He's given you a second chance, so make sure he doesn't have to give you a third.

No, all these approaches are disastrous. God has saved us not only out of love, but into love. That is, his love is not only the motivation for his redemptive work, it is also the content of its goal. The goal of salvation is that we become God's children, not only as the objects of his love, but as those who share in it, who imitate their father's perfection, who love because and as he first loved us.

"[A]ll Christian action is a privilege, not an obligation, since we are God's children."

- Hans Urs von Balthasar, "Nine Propositions on Christian Ethics"
in Principles of Christian Morality (trans. Graham Harrison;
San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986 [1975]), 77.

Or to put the same idea in an O'Donovanian mode:
"A belief in Christian ethics is a belief that certain ethical and moral judgements belong to the gospel itself; a belief, in other words, that the church can be committed to ethics without moderating the tone of its voice as a bearer of glad tidings."

- Oliver O'Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order
(second edition; Leicester, England: Eerdmans, 1994 [1986]), 12.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Cash for cars: government funding for the auto-industry

Both the American and Australian governments are spending a lot of time at the moment talking about spending a lot of money to prop up struggling automobile industries. While I understand that there are tens of thousands of jobs at stake, the longer term future of the industry must also be considered. If the future of petrol is expensive (despite recent drops - don't expect oil to stay low for too long!), then the future of transport will not lie in ever increasing government support for increasingly unpopular gas-guzzlers. Perhaps some of that money could be better spent on developing public transport?

And here is a thought from the Australia Institute's Between the Lines, 13th November 2008:

Government assistance is not coming back into fashion—it never left. The Howard Government gave billions away to the childcare industry, the agriculture industry and the mining industry, to name a select few. The Bush administration was never serious about free markets and small government; it gave hundreds of billions away to its friends in agriculture, oil and defence.

Hopefully, what is coming back into fashion is the creation of a coherent set of criteria for awarding such assistance, along with some transparency about the likely benefits and some evidence on the actual outcomes. The car industry is now required to spend its money on making cars green; similar obligations must be placed on the electricity industry.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Starting with Christ: the limits of neutrality

On being a Christian fanatic

"The Christian who lives by faith has the right to justify his moral actions on the basis of his faith."

- Hans Urs von Balthasar, "Nine Propositions on Christian Ethics"
in Principles of Christian Morality (trans. Graham Harrison;
San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986 [1975]), 77.

Christian ethics (and theology more generally for that matter) does not attempt to discover a "neutral" starting point without presuppositions and build arguments from first principles. We start, as everyone always starts, in media res, in the middle of things. To leave one's beliefs and commitments behind when pursuing intellectual inquiry makes for less, not more, interesting and valid conclusions. Of course such commitments and beliefs will be revisable (the first freedom is the freedom to repent), but attempts at neutrality are nearly always simply a reversion to the background assumptions of the culture one finds oneself in. Such a supposed neutrality is thus less likely to lead to critical reflection upon the conditions of possibility of that culture and its faults and elisions than a perspective that begins unashamed of its convictions and enters into dialogue with other such interlocutors.

This has been an abstract discussion of a principle that makes more sense in the concrete. Jesus is the Christ and reflection upon our actions and ways of life (i.e. ethics) must first respond to that announcement. This can seem like too small or particular a starting point to sustain and shape the whole of life. Yet as we grow more aware of the contours of that reality and all that it encompasses, we are led deeper into the richness and complexity of our existence. In Christ, in that one word, we find the entire world and ourselves as well.

It might also seem like an irredeemably partisan commencement, from which no agreement or peace may ever be reached. This is both true, and false. It is true, because Christ makes claims upon the world and upon our lives that stand in tension with all other claims. No one can serve two masters. There are two ways to walk: one broad, one narrow. Those who are not for Christ are against him.

And yet walking the way of Christ is a peculiar kind of opposition to "the world". Christ is hostile to hostility, he takes captivity captive, he kills death, destroys destruction, opposes opposition, hates hatred, excludes exclusion; he loves the world. His is a battle in which he prefers to be killed than kill. His "party" can thus never be merely partisan. Christianity can never conceive of itself as one viewpoint amongst and against others, one religion amongst and against others, one lifestyle amongst and against others. "Our struggle is not against flesh and blood" (Ephesians 6.12). The way of Christ is a restless one, never content with the divisions and contradictions of human society, including the contradiction and division created when you simply try to dissolve such differences by a well-meaning but myopic relativism.

Therefore, the church, as the faction of Christ, can not be reduced sociologically to one cultural or political agenda. The church does not have a social program, it is not an interest group. Trusting in the God who raised Christ from the dead, it is to look not to its own interests, but to the interests of others. It embodies, and so holds out to the world, the promise of a society in which the interests and rights of one group need not be understood to be in competition with those of another. It believes and so pursues (imperfectly and provisionally) the common good.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

10 ways to amuse a geek

1. Make a list of the top 10 ways to amuse a geek.
10. Use binary.

NB There are two types of people in the world.
1. Those who index their arrays starting at 1.
1. Those who index their arrays starting at 0.
H/T Brandon. This was a blast from a past spent amongst calculators and calculus. Now I am a geek of a different kind.

Humanity i love you

Humanity i love you
because you would rather black the boots of
success than enquire whose soul dangles from his
watch-chainwhich would be embarrassing for both

parties and because you unflinchingly applaud all
songs containing the words country home and
mother when sung at the old howard

Humanity i love you because
when you're hard up you pawn your
intelligence to buy a drink and when
you're flush pride keeps

you from the pawn shop and
because you are continually committing
nuisances but more
especially in your own house

Humanity i love you because you
are perpetually putting the secret of
life in your pants and forgetting
it's there and sitting down

on it
and because you are
forever making poems in the lap
of death Humanity

i hate you

- e. e. cummings

Speaking of idolatry...

... I found this story about Christians praying for the US economy by placing their hands on the Wall Street bull jaw-droppingly ironic. (H/T Neil)

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Change We Need: Reflections upon Obama

The election of Obama is a good thing for many reasons. On average and compared with the alternative, I think it reduces the chance of new wars (though there will still be wars); it increases the chance of an international agreement on a response to climate change (though such a response will still probably be too little, too late); it helps to undermine racial stereotypes and mistrust (though violence and prejudice will survive); it is a little less likely to lead towards unbridled consumerism (but don't hold your breath); it is less likely to continue to undermine civil liberties and the rule of law (though Obama did vote to extend the Patriot act); it will almost certainly improve the quality of metaphors in political discourse ("war on terror"?); it may well improve access to healthcare for some of America's poor (though it will not erase poverty); and could even make this foreign nation a little less alien to some of the rest of the world (though one election doesn't undo the myriad sins of empire, even if Kenya has declared a national holiday).

But the speeches and discussion also left me worried. Not so much at the extreme partisanship of some commentators, who were unable to be gracious in victory or defeat. Not even so much at the Obamamania that thinks the election of one man has banished the politics of fear and ushered in a new era of honesty. After all, emotional attachment to political representatives is generally a good thing and this moment is a moving one for many people.

No, my anxiety is less that people might think Obama is the messiah (we will be surely disabused of that notion quickly enough) and more that Americans think their nation is messianic. American exceptionalism is alive and well. It was referenced repeatedly by both candidates in their speeches (full texts: McCain and Obama) and was an assumption deeply ingrained in most of the American commentators I saw interviewed last night (remaining politely unchallenged by the BBC coverage, apart from one or two significant pauses at (in)appropriate moments).

From its foundation, the United States has believed itself to be a unique nation, with a God-given role to be a light on a hill. This belief is the most ironic - yet also most frequent - theological error in a country obsessed with a "separation" between church and state: the confusion of the two.

Governments do indeed have a genuine role to play in God's plan, but the exaltation of Christ ("All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" - Matthew 28.18) has revealed this role to be temporary and passing. At the end, when Christ will hand the kingdom to the Father, he will have "destroyed every ruler and every authority and power." (1 Corinthians 15.24) But what of now? Christ has been granted all authority but hasn't yet destroyed all competing authorities. Where are states left after the exaltation of Christ and before the final consummation? They do indeed still hold authority from God (Romans 13.1-7), but of a limited and strictly provisional kind. Crucially, this authority is not redemptive, but focused on, and limited to, the prosecution of justice: punishing the wrongdoer and commending those who do right. Governments are not the messiah, they simply restrain the very naughty boys (and girls). American political aspirations have often gone well beyond this mandate, hoping to "heal this nation" and "repair this world", in the words of another Obama speech.
For this argument in full, see O'Donovan's The Desire of the Nations.

But increasingly, it seems, US political rhetoric has become less about having a divinely-appointed role as it is a self-made one. God's gift or summons of the American people to a manifest destiny (confusing America with biblical Israel) has turned into a works gospel of an international pre-eminence earned through hard-work and self-belief. "We are the ones we have been waiting for." America is exceptional because it is the most fervent in believing itself to be so; it is the self-made nation that has pulled itself up by its bootstraps, conquering the world through will-power.

To illustrate these claims, let us turn briefly to the two speeches last night. The graciousness and eloquence of both candidates was evident in their respective speeches. Throughout the campaign, it had become clear that neither were going to be as rich a source for comic gaffes as Bush, but both speeches were highlights of public discourse. Yet both included strident claims to American exceptionalism.

McCain (emphasis added):

"And I call on all Americans, as I have often in this campaign, to not despair of our present difficulties, but to believe, always, in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history."
The greatness of America consists in its escape from historical necessity through sheer willpower.

Obama: (emphasis added)
"[Tonight's election result] is the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day."
Once more history is to be grasped and manipulated and determined by those who are self-determined, who believe it to be possible to do so.

Here is the key section from a little later in Obama's oration:
"And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world - our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down - we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security - we support you. And to all those who have wondered if Americas beacon still burns as bright - tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.

"For that is the true genius of America - that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow."
This was finally an acknowledgement (so rare in this campaign) that America is not the extent of the world and finally a hint that more people were watching this election (and are likely to be affected by its outcome) outside the States than inside them. Even the claim to leadership need not itself be problematic, as long as the manner of leadership is moral, through ideals - that is, through persuasion and example, rather than merely military might or brute wealth.

However, it is the content of these ideals that forms the basis of a contemporary destructive idolatry. According to Obama, the genius of America is its transcendence of the past and the perfectibility of its union. Notice first how clever politically this is, to identify the genius of the nation with a progressivist mindset. Notice also the irony of this claim to many non-American ears, who usually see the American political spectrum balanced further to the conservative end of scale than elsewhere.

But it is this latter phrase, the perfectibility of the union, that really demands further reflection. The whole second paragraph here ("For that is the true genius of America [...] must achieve tomorrow") is taken word for word from his rightly famous speech on 18th March 2008, titled "A More Perfect Union", in which he directly addressed race relations for the first time in his campaign (and which will be studied for years to come as a model of effective communication. If you've never heard or read it, do so. You won't regret it). Yet, apart from this one paragraph which he re-used last night, that earlier speech was careful to speak of the political improvability of society but not of its perfectibility. I have written previously about the dangers of conceiving change in this way and of the necessity of liberating politics from the burden of perfection. But Obama offered no concessions: "what we can and must achieve tomorrow". While he mentioned the long-term nature of this project, he laid the full burden of this perfection upon his audience:
"The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you - we as a people will get there."
The expectation and demand for moral (or social) perfection outside of God's gracious calling, Christ's atoning sacrifice and the Spirit's indwelling is destructively impossible. Yet Obama offered this possibility based on little more than grit and determination: "So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other." Or rather, he offered it on the basis of a messianic promise: the promise of a nation where grit and determination, willpower and a belief that America is different can overcome all obstacles.

America is the leader of the world because it is special. It is special because of its ideals. Its ideals include the idea that America is perfectible. It is perfectible through willpower. Thus, America believes itself to be the desire of the nations largely because it desires this very fact to be true with such zeal. It is a self-made messiah with a mission to perfect itself, thus demonstrating to the world its own perfectibility.

Yet this account leaves no room for historical contingency or divine providence. Indeed America has become supposedly great through the denial of contingent limitations, the overcoming of nature through the unfettered human will. There is no acknowledgement of other factors that have contributed to America's global pre-eminence. America is great because it wants to be great, not because land was forcefully taken from an indigenous population decimated by European disease, not because of aggressive wars of expansion, not because the land thus claimed and united by a single European power was rich in natural resources, not because of the discovery and exploitation of oil, and not because of a thousand other factors. Of course, these alone do not explain American history, but neither does sheer willpower. And the danger of an account that only admits the latter is that when, inevitably, there are tectonic shifts in world power (through, for example, the eclipse of oil as a primary means of cheap and abundant energy, whether this occurs in five years or fifty years), there is no room in this self-understanding for America to be anything other than first. The danger of a messianic America based on a narrative of willpower is that if and when America's rule is threatened, it will never cede power graciously. It will blame first itself (those amongst it who oppose the changes "necessary" to keep the country great) and then those who stand in its way, with a zeal that is all the more blind for being so self-referential.

Obama, like so many of America's great orators, is deeply grounded in biblical imagery and language. His words will continue to inspire millions, even as the nation he will soon lead faces a bewildering array of urgent and protracted problems. Yet by perpetuating the myth of American exceptionalism, he continues a tradition that itself stands in urgent need of change.

Theoblogs on Obama

Elsewhere in the theoblogosphere, Jason reminds us of O'Donovan's claim that democracy is not an absolute good, but merely a contingent good for (some) societies. Halden reflects on an Ellul quote I posted a month or so ago and encourages Christians to avoid idolatrous overstatement of the historical significance of this election. Both important points. I will take them up and offer some of my own reflections soon.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Three reasons why the rest of the world ought to be more like Australia

Jingoistic as it may seem, I really do think that Australia gets many things right when it comes to elections. Having observed the two-year circus of the US elections and had various discussions with a range of international students about their home systems, I think there are at least three slightly unusual elements to the Australian system that are worth preserving (and imitating!):

1. An independent electoral commission
In some countries (most notably the US), electoral boundaries are determined by the government, or a government-appointed board, leading to a phenomenon known as "Gerrymandering", in which electoral boundaries are manipulated for political advantage.

2. Compulsory voting
Jury duty is compulsory, though in certain extenuating circumstances, one may be excused. Voting, as another exercise in civic deliberation, ought to be the same. Compulsory voting removes the huge efforts both sides have to go to in order to "get out the vote" and so frees up more energy for discussion of the issues, since there are not two choices ("Should I vote?"; "For whom should I vote?") but only the latter. Non-compulsory voting disadvantages those with least power over their work situation and can lead to a self-fulfilling feeling of disenfranchisement and political apathy. This is magnified through weekday elections. Australia's elections seem to always happen on a Saturday, which to my mind, makes much more sense.

3. Preferential voting
While people I discuss these issues with are generally hesitant about compulsory voting (until the benefits are explained) and sometimes sceptical about the neutrality of any electoral commission, I am yet to meet someone who is not in favour of preferential voting once it has been explained to them. For those unfamiliar with it, preferential voting means that rather than simply selecting one candidate or party as the recipient of your vote, you are able (or even obliged, in Australian Federal elections, though I think this is a mistake) to rank the candidates according to your preference. When counting votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and his/her votes are redistributed on the basis of their second preferences. This process is repeated (using third, fourth, etc preferences if necessary) until one candidate has a majority. This has the enormous advantage of avoiding the "Ralph Nader" effect, in which a third-party candidate splits the vote of a major party candidate, who ends up losing, even though a majority of the population might have preferred him to the winning candidate. With preferential voting, it is possible to vote for a minor candidate without thereby "wasting" your vote. When combined with compulsory voting, it also ensures that the eventual winner will have been preferred by an absolute majority of eligible voters in the electorate over any other candidate. The only drawback to my mind is that this system is a little more complex and may confuse some voters. I understand that Canada recently tried to introduce preferential voting but the reform was rejected due to fear of it becoming too complex to understand.
UPDATE: Neil has kindly given a further explanation and defence of my three claims. Thanks!

Monday, November 03, 2008

Obama 2008

I have spoken in the past about my serious reservations concerning Senator Obama's campaign (which have not dissipated) and of points of sympathy with Senator McCain, but at no point have I actually changed my mind. I am still hoping that the polls are correct and that Obama wins a decisive victory tomorrow.

I wanted to write something a little more substantial outlining my thinking on this matter but time has got away from me. And so I don't think I can do better than this editorial from The New Yorker (H/T Matt). I agree with about 95% of it and find it briefly expresses why this election matters and why on a wide range of key issues Obama is the better candidate for a job in which failure is inevitable but in which there are still greater and lesser disasters. He is not the messiah; but neither is he likely to be a very naughty boy.

The smart vote

Research in Edinburgh (of all places) has linked childhood IQ to voting patterns and the results may surprise you. Or not.